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Pro Bono Net

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Oct. 27 - Becoming una abogada - Laura Israel Sinrod, Associate, Fried, Frank

In honor of National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, Pro Bono Net has lined up a variety of guest bloggers from law firms, legal aid organizations and elsewhere to share their pro bono ideas and experiences. Today's post comes from Laura Israel Sinrod, a litigation associate at Fried Frank and the Fried Frank Fellow at inMotion from August 2010 to August 2011.

It was the moment of my interview that I had been dreading:

"I would like to hear your Spanish, por favor. ¿Podría hablarme en español?"

I had been preparing to answer this question every night for a week - ever since I learned that I had an interview for my firm's year-long fellowship at inMotion, a fantastic organization that provides free matrimonial, family and immigration law services to indigent women in New York City. I knew from my in-house pro bono cases that Spanish skills, while not a prerequisite, would be enormously helpful in serving my potential new clients. So, for a week before my inMotion interview, my husband (fluent as a result of study abroad) and I spoke Spanish over dinner every night, all on the off-chance that the "conversational Spanish" on my resume would strike a chord with my interviewer. And here was that chance.

Slowly, I explained, in Spanish, that I could have basic conversations with clients - giving directions to the office, introducing myself, asking about their families - but that I did not have the comfort level to conduct a client meeting in Spanish. My interviewer (who would later become my supervisor) was encouraging, and told me that with a little practice and maybe a refresher course, she would feel comfortable placing Spanish-speaking clients with me, knowing that I could always ask for help from the many Spanish-speaking attorneys in our office. A few days later, the fellowship was mine . . . and about one-third of my new clients were Spanish speakers who spoke little to no English.

The first few weeks on the job, I felt nervous and self-conscious speaking in Spanish. Before I would call a Spanish-speaking client I would write out what I planned to say. I kept a running list of frequently used vocabulary on a stickynote on my monitor - la jueza (the judge), el maintenimiento (spousal support), su archivo (your file), and my personal favorite request, más despacio, por favor (a little slower, please). The inMotion staff was extraordinarily generous with their time - often coming to meetings or jumping on telephone calls with my fastest talkers.

Right away, I set a goal for myself of being able to conduct client meetings in Spanish by the end of the year. My firm generously paid for me to take an intensive conversation class at the New School, but, in the end, my most gracious and patient teachers were my clients. Over my year at inMotion I spent countless long days waiting in Family or Supreme Court with a client, often arriving at 9:00 in the morning and not being heard by a judge until 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon. Instead of bringing other work to do, I used the time to talk to my clients about anything other than their cases-and always, en español. A Dominican client told me about her decision to come to the United States for better medical care. A Peruvian client told me about her childhood outside Lima. When I told a Puerto Rican client who spoke perfect English that I routinely spent half the day speaking in Spanish, she insisted on hearing me speak and giving me a chance to practice. For all my worry about sounding foolish in a new language, not once did a client roll her eyes when my r's didn't roll perfectly, or criticize me for forgetting to use the subjunctive. Nobody laughed when I mixed up por and para.

My year at inMotion, which just wrapped up this past August, was a life changing experience that helped me to develop a host of new legal skills, but the one for which I'm most grateful today is the tweak I made to my intranet profile when I returned to the firm: "proficient in Spanish." Gracias a mis clientes por hacer esto posible. Thank you to my clients for making this possible.

Laura Israel Sinrod is a litigation associate at Fried Frank and was the Fried Frank Fellow at inMotion from August 2010 to August 2011. To learn about pro bono opportunities at inMotion, visit their site.

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